Saturday, 20 March 2010

Joseph Priestley in Calne – Norman Beale ***

Of all the well-known names in the history of science, Joseph Priestley is probably amongst the least well served in terms of popular biography. There is a chunky, detailed academic biography, but very little for the general reader about the man who discovered oxygen.
This slim volume fills in a considerable amount of the story in a dry but readable fashion. Author Norman Beale, a retired GP who has made a study of Priestley and his work, concentrates particularly on Priestley’s time in the Wiltshire town of Calne, when his most significant discoveries were made at the nearby Bowood House, home of Priestley’s sponsor the Marquis of Lansdowne. The book does cover the rest of his life, before and after Calne, but in brief form, where there is much more detail for the period that Beale highlights.
The book gives us a detailed and insightful feel for Priestley’s life and work in the period. I would have preferred a little more of the science and perhaps a touch less of the domestic detail, but we get a good feel for Priestley and the way he thought. Although it is self-published, the book is well produced on glossy paper and has been well edited – it hasn’t the sloppy feel of some self-publications.
Just occasionally I found the author’s approach a little over-fussy, or oddly worded. Speaking of a house Priestley rented in Calne he comments ‘This property is always supposed to have been that which is now 19, The Green, so-called “Priestley House.”‘ This sounds rather archaic, and it’s not quite clear from this whether or not Beale really believes this is the right house. Later on, in the chapter where Priestley makes his key discovery, we read: ‘Priestley did not discover oxygen. Since the one thing that most people can tell you about Priestley is that he did discover oxygen, this apparent nonsense needs careful explanation,’ (Author’s italics.) This is pedantry, pure and simple. It’s like saying Newton didn’t invent calculus, or Herschel didn’t discover Uranus, since neither of them called the thing they invented/discovered by those names. The fact that Priestley called oyxgen ‘dephlogisticated air’ doesn’t mean he didn’t discover it.
However, these are small niggles in what is generally an informative and enjoyable book. At 79 pages plus notes it won’t take long to read, but is well worth taking the time over. If you visit Bowood House in Wiltshire (where you can see Priestley’s laboratory), you can pick up a copy of the book there, as an alternative to Amazon.
Paperback:  
Review by Brian Clegg

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